In a much anticipated bilateral summit, U.S. President Donald Trump met with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland earlier this week, and the results were shocking.
During a press conference at the conclusion of the July 16th summit, President Trump was asked by a reporter if he believed that Russia was responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Contradicting U.S. intelligence agencies, which place the blame squarely on Russia, Trump stated: “I don't see any reason why it would be Russia."
Trump’s statement, coupled with his deferential treatment of Putin, set off a political firestorm in the United States. When the American President arrived back home, his performance in Finland was met with widespread criticism from many different sources, including leading Republican politicians as well as Fox News, which usually grants Trump favourable coverage.
However, in the age of 24 hours cable news and social media, there is a lot of political noise but very little sober, rational analysis of foreign policy. So it is illuminating to hear what an expert familiar with the ways of diplomacy has to say about the Helsinki Summit and Donald Trump’s controversial performance.
Chris Alexander, who is perhaps best known as a former immigration minister in Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, served for many years as a diplomat, including as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan. In Aug. of 2003, at the age of 35, Alexander took up his post as ambassador in Kabul. And he later served as the Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009.
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Before his rise to the top of the diplomatic ranks, Alexander, who speaks fluent Russian, worked for many years on the Russia file. “I spent a lot of my professional life there,” the former diplomat said of Russia.
In 1991, Alexander joined what was then known as the Department of External Affairs. Just weeks later, there was an attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, then Premier of the Soviet Union. And Alexander was tasked with watching CNN around the clock to help keep the Canadian embassy in Russia up to date on the latest developments regarding the August coup attempt. After that assignment, Alexander was assigned to the Russia desk in the European division at the Department of External Affairs.
“In 1992, I was one of the first desk officers for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine,” Alexander said of his advancement within the ranks at External Affairs in Ottawa. “And then in 1993, I started a first posting in Russia, the third secretary and the vice-consul.”
After a three year posting in Russia, the young diplomat returned to Ottawa and worked with Canada’s G8 Sherpa before being tapped to run the Russia desk as deputy director in 1997.
Alexander later returned to Russia as “the number two” in the Canadian embassy at Moscow.
“I spent really 12 years working more or less continuously on Russia and on Canada-Russia relations, and on Russian integration into global institutions, and on reform, supporting parliamentary institutions in Russia, supporting federalism in Russia, supporting democracy in Russia, and supporting our relations in the Arctic and North,” Alexander recalled.
“It has been painful to see a lot of that unwound, coming apart with the rise of Putin, the unilateralist, violent strongman who is hell bent on turning the clock back,” said Alexander, noting the erosion of democracy and press freedom in Russia.
What does Alexander make of the controversial comments that Donald Trump made at the Helsinki Summit press conference? “It sounds to me like he was ingratiating himself with the President of Russia, that he wanted to impress the President of Russia with his loyalty to him and to Russia’s view of the world,” Alexander replied bluntly.
“And I have never seen something so abject from any Western leader, let alone from any democratic leader, let alone the President of the United States in my entire life. I was gobsmacked.”
Is America to blame?
Despite ample evidence of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea, support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and interference in the democratic process in a number of countries, Donald Trump said that Russia is not responsible for strained relations with the United States.
On July 16, 2018, the U.S. President tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt.”
Is Trump correct? Is the United States to blame for poor bilateral relations between the United States and Russia? “I think U.S. policy has been weak and incoherent,” Alexander conceded, noting that President Barack Obama attempted to reset relations with Russia. As was the case with President George W. Bush’s attempts to improve relations with the Putin regime, Obama’s initiative “ended in failure,” he said.
“The bottom line is that Putin has shut down democracy and fundamental freedoms in Russia. He has invaded two countries now (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014), and undermined democracy in many more. These are not signs of friendship or shared values. On the contrary, these are attacks on institutions that we hold very dear that have been going unanswered for too long.”
In Alexander’s estimation, “the real problem began in 2011 when Obama withdrew the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq.” And he said American attempts to disengage from the Middle East created a political vacuum in Iraq, contributed to a civil war in Syria that “flared up into one of the most significant genocides of our time,” he said.
In addition, Obama’s withdrawal from the Middle East “gave someone as ruthless as Putin an opportunity to shape events that he never should have had.” The abdication of the West’s responsibility in Syria was “the key enabler of Putin’s muscle flexing in Ukraine and of his sustained attack on democracy in many Western countries since 2014.”
Alexander warns that “as long as we continue to show weakness, as both Obama and Trump have done in the face of Putin, we are going to be in trouble.”
American foreign policy regarding Russia has failed in recent decades, Alexander repeated for emphasis. “But what we need is to be more assertive and stronger. And Donald Trump seems inclined to be the opposite.”
The day after the July 16th Helsinki Summit was the fourth anniversary of the downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed insurgents are waging a bloody war in hopes of carving up the country. International investigators concluded that a Russian weapons system, the Buk missile, knocked MH17 out of the sky, killing everyone on board.
On July 17, 2018, Karin Mossenlechner, the Ambassador of The Netherlands to Malaysia, posted on Twitter: “Today four years ago, 298 innocent people, on their way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, lost their lives. Among them 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysians and many other nationals. Thinking of all of them and their loved ones. We will not forget. #MH17”
The foreign ministers of the G7 also issued a joint statement, declaring their support “of Australia and the Netherlands as they call on Russia to account for its role in this incident and to cooperate fully with the process to establish the truth and achieve justice for the victims of MH17 and their next of kin.”
Should Trump have raised the issue of MH17 with Putin and publicly called for Russia to be held to account for the unprovoked destruction of a civilian airliner? “Absolutely,” Alexander replied without hesitation.
“Remember what the international reaction was when the Korean airline flight went down so many years ago,” said Alexander in reference to a 1983 incident in which the Soviet Union shot down a commercial airliner filled with innocent civilians.
On Sept. 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines passenger jet, Fight KAL007, strayed into the Soviet Union’s airspace just west of Sakhalin Island and was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter. All 269 people on board, including 61 Americans, perished. At first, the Soviets denied responsibility for the downing of KAL007. But when it became apparent to the world what had happened, the Kremlin claimed that the civilian airliner was an American spy plane in an attempt to justify mass murder.
Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan was both shocked and outraged by the incident. Cutting his vacation at his ranch in California short, Reagan returned to the White House to deliver a nationally televised address. And he did not mince words.
“This was the Soviet Union against the world,” Reagan said of the destruction of Flight KAL007. “It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life and seeks constantly to expand and dominate others.”
“We all cried bloody murder, because that was what it was,” Alexander said of the downing of KAL007. “And now Trump meets Putin on the eve of this anniversary (MH17) and does nothing apparently, either privately or publicly. It’s not just Orwellian, it’s deeply depressing.”
The illegal occupation and annexation of another country’s territory is “bad enough,” Alexander said of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea. “When you add to that indiscriminate civilian casualties and an attempt to cover-up the truth, you are getting into a really diabolical territory,” he said of the MH17 incident.
Dutch and Malaysian authorities have attempted to uncover the truth regarding MH17, said Alexander, “and they need the support of their strongest ally.” It was “really disgraceful that was not forthcoming,” he said of Trump’s lack of support.
Alexander lives just three blocks from a family in Ajax, ON, whose son perished when MH17 was blown out of the sky. He was the only Canadian victim of the attack.” And the former diplomat said “nothing can ever compensate for that loss for this poor couple” whom he and his wife met with on the fourth anniversary of their son’s murder.
“When they heard the news about this flight, they were obviously like all the other families, anxious for news,” he said of that dreadful day four years ago. “They came and knocked on our door, because we’re neighbours. We had to receive the confirmation (of their son’s death) together, and they have been devastated ever since.”
Trump’s supporters point to the fact that he has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They also contend that the sale of American weapons to Ukraine is evidence of the President’s strong support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.
Is Trump strong enough in his support of Ukraine? “No, he definitely is not,” Alexander said. "I have heard very little new from him.”
In fact, Alexander said that it has been other parts of the U.S. government, not the White House, that have been helpful to Ukraine. “Trump has made no personal contribution, I would say, to supporting Ukraine,” he asserted
In addition, Alexander alleged that Trump’s “obvious closeness, which verges on subservience to Putin, is deeply unsettling for all Ukrainians.” And the former Conservative Cabinet minister wants to know “if Trump has been so strong on these issues, then why is Vladimir Putin saying in Moscow today that the President of the United States made him a very interesting offer on Ukraine—without revealing what that might have been?”
Alexander also maintains that “there are serious questions about the relationship between these two men, about Trump’s history in Russia, and about the essential leverage the Russian government seems to have over him.”
At the G20 Summit held in Brisbane, Australian in 2014, then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confronted Putin face-to-face. "I guess I'll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine," Harper reportedly told the Russian strongman, much to the delight of the Australian press.
Should Trump have taken a page out of Stephen Harper’s playbook and confronted Putin over Ukraine at the Helsinki Summit? “Absolutely,” replied Alexander. “The more leaders that embrace that principled approach the better,” he said of his former leader’s tough stand on Ukraine.
“But we’ve all known from long before the election that Donald Trump is not going to be that kind of leader. And this is one of the reasons why the Russians have been so anxious, with other unsavoury players from around the world, to smooth Trump’s way into the White House.”
Alexander speculates that the reason Trump is “so adamant” in denying that there was Russian interference in the election, or that his campaign colluded with the Russians, is because he doesn’t want his legitimacy as President to be undermined.
Alexander wants to know why the American President seems to be uninterested in protecting U.S. democracy from concerted Russian attacks. And Alexander contends that “it wasn’t even a possibility” that Trump would publicly challenge Putin at the Helsinki Summit regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, because the American President sees the Russian leader as an ally, “not as a foe, or an adversary.”
Moreover, Alexander described Trump’s behaviour at the Helsinki Summit press conference with Putin as “obsequious.” And he pointed out that Trump met with Putin without notetakers in private meetings. “I could not imagine a Canadian prime minister spending that amount of time, anything more than five minutes with a foreign leader, let alone a known KGB operative now in office for a long time, whose stock and trade is manipulation and blackmail.”
“For Harper and for our government, it was quite simple, Russia and Putin had been given the opportunity to play a constructive role in this body (the G8) for many years,” Alexander said of the Harper government’s approach to Russia. “It became clear to Stephen Harper, I think, over many G8 meetings, that the values that are the foundation for those discussions were not shared by Putin, and it was not possible to have helpful discussion when he was essentially acting the role of spoiler on almost every issue.”
After the invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Harper spearheaded the successful campaign to expel Russia from the G8. And Alexander said he was “absolutely bowled over” to hear Trump say at the recent G7 Summit hosted by Canada that Russia should be allowed back in the group. “By making that suggestion, he is essentially arguing that the annexation and invasion of the territory of another country doesn’t matter.”
As a result, Alexander questions “the judgement and the ability of this President of the United States to pursue his country’s national interests.”
Will Trump’s performance at Helsinki embolden Putin? “Yes, I think Putin is emboldened by his latest (political) mandate, by his ability to influence election outcomes from Germany to Italy to the United States to Canada to Brexit,” he answered.
However, Alexander noted that “the one democracy where he (Putin) hasn’t had success recently is France. And that’s one of the reasons why (French President Emmanuel) Macron has be